by John Powers
Department of English and Comparative Literature,
California State University, Fullerton, California U.S.A.

Viredo Viredo Espinosa (who would use only his first name as an artist), the eldest of three children, was born in 1928 in Regla, a small town across the bay from Havana. His early childhood was spent swimming, watching the ships come in to the harbor, and tracing the graceful flight of the Pan Am Clippers gliding gently into Havana harbor.

Regla was an historic port that once served as the shipping yard of the Spanish Armada.With the larger ships now being served in the deeper part of the harbor, Regla still docked smaller ships and fishing boats. It was a thriving neighborhood integrated with people of African and Spanish decent.

Much of Viredo's later art was based on his childhood interaction with this mix of Catholicism, Santeria rites, and Calabar ceremonies. Viredo learned African heritage from these people, including a ninety-year old former slave who told him of the terror of coming from Africa on a slave ship.

His father's barbershop provided him additional lore from the sailors, fishermen, and dock workers who were the main customers.

Viredo became curious about the variety of religious ceremonies with their distinct music and color. He often attended these ceremonies with his friends and helped copy booklets of symbols. Viredo became interested in art at an early age, drawing Christmas cards for the family. But it was the color of the mix of cultures that began finding its way into his early art. He attended public school until the seventh grade when his family moved in 1940. His father had become increasingly involved in politics and took a post with the Ministry of Public Works in Havana. In Havana, he attended Superior school where he received his first formal training in art. Occasionally he visited old friends in Regla but his life now was grounded in the cosmopolitan Havana.

At age fourteen, he apprenticed doing artwork for a newspaper owned by a friend of his father. Here he learned lettering, layout, and spot illustrations. He also began to study the work of major comic artists of the time. A year later he began working for the newspaper, Zig Zag, where he added to his skills in commercial art by working with other more experienced artists.

His father wanted him to become a lawyer so he attended "Instituto de Segunda Enseñansa" for two years. His real love remained art and he told his father of his desire to attend art school. His father warned him that "almost all artists die hungry" and yet supported his move. As a compromise, he added commercial art skills to supplement his fine art studies. To this end, at the School of Art and Officio he learned to make blueprints and architectural renderings.

That summer he spent three months in the country painting peasant life in a non- academic, non romanticized manner that would become his later trademark. He left the Academy in 1948 to pursue his painting while supplementing his art with commercial work.
His mature style began to develop. He liked the control of the early cubists, but rejected the abstract expressionism because he felt it lacked a definite subject matter. While his paintings were somewhat abstract with the geometry of cubism, the figures were stylized and recognizable. He didn't prefer a particular palette, but almost always used a great deal of white as a reference point for other colors. He used texture to soften color planes and to add a sense of motion.

Viredo Art
Viredo, Noigma, and Nestor
In 1948, Viredo achieved his first artistic success at the annual Book Faire (Feria Del Libro),a large event sponsored by the Ministry of Education in Havana's Central Park. Viredo was invited to show two works. Both works, portraits, sold. In addition, during the exhibition,Viredo was able to meet Wilfredo Lam, one of the best known artists of the first generation of Cuban modernists whose kind words inspired Viredo to devote more intense work and study to his art.
It was an exciting time to be a young artist in Havana. Most nights, this next generation of artists to impact Cuba art could be found at Las Antillas Cafe. Here Viredo learned of the art movements outside of Cuba from the artists who had traveled to the United States and Europe. Among those who frequented the cafe were the writers Cabrera Infante and Heberto Padilla, the painter Mario Carreño, and a number of the sculptors and painters who would soon become "los Once."

The success of 1948 subsided with the reality of 1949. Viredo was rejected from the first major show he had entered, the National Show (Salon Nacional).. His family began to pressure him to enter a more secure profession. Despite hard economic times, he continued to paint and experiment and found part time commercial work.

In 1950, Viredo's work was again rejected from the National Show, but he, along with other rejected artists organized the National Salon of Rejection (Salon Nacional de Rechazados) held at Circulo de Bellas Artes. This was to be his first major exhibition. He showed two paintings, which did not sell, but more importantly his name in the catalog put him in the company of the most important emerging artists in Cuba.

In addition to his artistic success, Viredo found a new source of commercial work that would continue to provide a stable income for the next few years, mural painting. His commissions eventually included numerous public buildings, restaurants, and private residences.
In 1952, he was invited to exhibit at the Sociedad Nuestro Tiempo in the show entitled, "Fifteen Young Painters and Sculptors"(15 Pintores y Escultores Jovenes). Only eleven artists ultimately showed work and the art critic Joaquin Texidor, in a favorable review in "Tiempo en Cuba", referred to the exhibitors as "The Group of Eleven" (Grupo de Los Once), a name that followed the young artists for the rest of their careers. Both of Viredo' paintings sold.

The history of the group is somewhat confused. Most historians agree on the names of the original eleven ( painters Rene Avila, Jose Bermudez, Hugo Consuegra, Fayad Jamis, Guido Llinas, Antonio Vidal, Viredo Espinosa, as well as sculptors Francisco Antigua, Agustin Cardenas, Jose Diaz Pelaz and Tomas Oliva). Their influence is generally considered to be significant as they introduced a new international style to Cuban art at mid century, particularly abstract and non figurative art.

Since they had no official manifesto, often exhibited with other artists, and represented a wide range of artistic styles, it is often difficult to trace their history. They were an iconoclastic group with some members embracing styles that other members flatly rejected.
Two additional shows are usually credited to the group: one at Lyceum Lawn Tennis and La Rampa, both in 1954. Many of the major art critics began to write favorably about the group and its increasing influence.

Viredo Art In addition to showing with "los Once", Viredo finally had two works accepted to the National Show. Gladys Lauderman writing in "Gente" magazine singled out Viredo's work for special praise."..(T)he oils of [Viredo] are the ones that have form and colors to become a message of Cuban art..''' Both paintings sold.

Viredo continued to show with various "Los Once" artists and to paint mural commissions. In 1955, he received his largest commission: the murals and design of ceramics and stained glass windows for the Embassy Club. The commission allowed him to marry Alicia Sanchez in February of that year. By 1956, the political situation in Cuba was becoming increasing strained. Some of the art exhibited by members of "Los Once" came under the scrutiny of the Batista regime because of perceived anti-government sentiments. In addition, some members of the group refused to show their works at government-sponsored exhibitions. The police even interviewed Viredo's father.

It was a time of terrorist bombings in Havana, rumors of police surveillance, and the disappearance of artists. Some, like the poet, Rolando Escardo, were briefly jailed. Others fled to Europe. Some, like Viredo, simply stopped showing paintings and assumed a low profile. Viredo worked quietly in commercial illustration and design for the next three years.

In 1959, Fidel Castro came to power and the darkening mood seemed to lift. Many of the self-exiled artists returned and praised the new regime. Viredo, who was essentially nonpolitical, was pleased at the new peace and the opportunity to show his work again in Havana. Although he did not know it at the time, the exhibition at Escuela de Arte Cubanakan in the fall of that year would be the last time he would show a painting in Cuba.

The new government began to reorganize much of Cuban life, including the arts, around the goals of the revolution. The Ministry of Culture established the National Association of Artist (Associación Nacional de Pintores, Escultores y Grabadores). All artist were pressured to join.

In 1960, Viredo and his "los Once" artist friend, Francisco Antigua, went to the National Association headquarters to inquire about membership. Viredo had reservations about signing the political form attached to the application. He decided not to join. This act proved significant and virtually ended his artistic life in Cuba. Without membership in the Association, he had no access to artistic supplies or exhibition possibilities.

Artists who did become members continued to work with government approval. Some were offered government positions, such as fellow "los Once" member,Fayad Jamis, who became a cultural attache in Mexico City. Viredo's friends encouraged him to reconsider even implying that he might secure an attache post in Czechslovakia. These overseas assignments did not include spouses to preclude defection. Viredo again declined.

Viredo was able to make a meager living by doing small jobs, such as architectural rendering, for firms that did not know his artistic past. Even these small jobs became increasingly hard to find. So, in 1965, Viredo decided that he and his wife must leave Cuba.

That exit process was not an easy one. Anyone who made an exit application had to work as a laborer while the application was processed. At first, Viredo worked at farms near Havana leaving home at 4:00 in the morning and not returning until evening. Soon the work took him to the eastern end of the island where he worked in the sugar cane fields. For one eighth-month stretch he saw his wife only three times.

Finally, after three-and-a half years of labor, his number on the waiting list for daily Freedom Flight was called. They were allowed to take nothing except the clothes they were wearing. In February of 1969, he saw Cuba for the last time as his plane departed for Miami.

Through the help of friends, he was able to secure work in Los Angeles where the couple were to live with a friend. He did illustration work for the leading department stores in the city and began to assimilate himself in his new country and its language. He also began to paint again in the evenings and on weekends.

Viredo Art
Viredo with MiJares
Local galleries in Los Angeles and nearby Orange County began to exhibit his works. His sales increased and he was able to secure mural commissions. By1977, his financial situation allowed him to again take up painting full time. It had been seventeen years since he had been able to devote his energies to the art he loved. His subject matter remained the rich culture of the Cuba.

He continued to offer his work to help the Cuban community. He designed posters for the Cuban-American Scholarship Fund and donated art work to raise money for various charitable causes.

Finally, Viredo began to receive the recognition he had long deserved. Beginning in 1998 he received commendations from the U.S. House of Representatives and the California State Assembly for his service to the community. In addition, he was awarded "Local Hero Award" by PBS station KCET and Union Bank of California. In 2000, he received the "La Palma Espinada" from the Cuban Culture Institute.

Most importantly, Viredo continues to make art. Like his native Cuba, he has experienced joy and sorrow in his seventy-two years. And yet after all he has seen and experienced, his work still radiates with the mysterious blend of cultures that he experienced in his youth in Regla and that continues to work its magic on him and all those who see his art.

to top